Cable Crunch Alternatives: How to Engage the Core

Published by Debbie Luna
Last Updated: October 18, 2021

Exercises that target the abdominal muscles have long been popular due to the aesthetic definition they provide in order to gain what is commonly known as the six-pack abs. The cable crunch is one such exercise that primarily works the rectus abdominis muscle which functions to flex the trunk. However, there are multiple other exercises that provide the same benefits as that of the cable crunch.

Alternatives to the cable crunch are exercises that engage the core with particular attention to the abdominals. Many of these alternatives may be done without the use of  equipment and are thus useful when working out anywhere. Alternative exercises such as the weighted crunch, reverse crunch, and the BOSU crunch also add variety to workout routines.

Learning how to properly perform a cable crunch is essential in understanding how alternative exercises are able to provide similar benefits. The available alternative exercises for the cable crunch include exercises that may be done with or without the use of added weights or equipment.

What Is a Cable Crunch?

A cable crunch is an abdominal exercise that allows overloading to induce hypertrophy.  It utilizes a cable or a pulley machine for resistance which provides controlled motion and the ability to add or decrease weight with the pull of a pin. This exercise targets and directly loads the rectus abdominis muscle.

To perform a cable crunch, a rope handle is attached to the pulley of a cable machine. The weight is adjusted according to the individual’s capacity before positioning themselves a few feet away from the machine and getting on their knees. The rope handle is held beside the head in preparation for the activity. Starting from the upright position, the abdominal muscles are flexed, hinging at the hips, while pulling the elbows towards the knees. The position is then held for one second before coming back up.

Benefits of Cable Crunches

Doing crunches on a cable machine offers several benefits over doing them on the floor. It allows for an increase in resistance which enables the individual to overload a muscle. Overloading is putting greater stress on the muscle more than it is used to. As a result, the muscles adapt by synthesizing more of the contractile elements of a muscle, thus making it stronger to be able to handle the added stress.

Using cable machines to do crunches permits the individual to adjust the weight according to their needs in order to gradually progress the exercise. The cable also keeps the abdominal muscles under constant tension which allows the muscles to work all throughout the range of motion.

A cable crunch, as with a traditional crunch, enhances core strength and targets the rectus abdominis muscle while also recruiting the obliques. The core muscles help transfer loads from the upper to the lower body, and vice versa. Strengthening the core muscles thus helps stabilize the spine and spares it from excessive load.

Alternatives to Cable Crunches

While cable crunches are a great way to strengthen the abdominal muscles and achieve a more aesthetic physique, equipment may not always be available. Alternatives to cable crunches may be utilized for variation and to achieve the same benefits.

Weighted Crunches

A weighted crunch is a variation of the traditional crunch which works the abdominal muscles. It involves adding weights to the activity such as a dumbbell, weight plates, or medicine ball to increase the resistance on the muscles. By holding a weight plate to the chest while doing a crunch, the abdominal muscles are challenged to a greater extent.

weighted crunch

To perform weighted crunches, the individual lies on their back with the knees bent, and the feet planted firmly on the floor. The weight plate is held against the chest with the arms crossed. While holding the plate, the abdominal muscles are flexed to raise the shoulders off the ground. The core muscles are engaged to bring the ribcage closer to the pelvis. This position is held for a second before slowly lowering the shoulders to complete one repetition.

Weighted crunches are a good alternative to cable crunches when a cable machine is not available. Although cable crunches may be better for the back due to the lack of contact between the spine and the ground, weighted crunches stimulate the same muscles and may prove beneficial if done properly.

BOSU Crunch

The BOSU ball, being an unstable surface, makes for great training equipment for enhancing stability especially of the core muscles. It also allows for more range when doing crunches due to the curve of the ball and particularly targets the upper rectus abdominis muscle.

bosu ball crunch

Doing BOSU ball crunches involves lying down on a BOSU ball with the spine supported by the ball, the knees bent, and the feet flat on the ground. The hands are placed behind the head as the individual crunches forward, holding the position for a second, before bringing the shoulders slowly back down.

To challenge the abdominal muscles more, a progression of this exercise may be done by utilizing dumbbells. The individual cradles a dumbbell behind the head to increase the resistance working against the abdominals.

Reverse Crunch

Back pain, neck strain, and equipment availability are only some of the reasons why an individual may not be able to perform the previous exercises. Reverse crunches address these obstacles which makes it a great alternative to strengthen and enhance abdominal muscles.

Studies have shown that decreasing the amount of lumbar flexion when doing crunches reduces the stress on the intervertebral discs. The amount of flexion range required to do a reverse crunch is lesser as compared to when doing cable crunches or even traditional crunches. This assumes that doing reverse crunches may be easier for the spine.

Neck strain when doing crunches is usually caused by the pulling of the head forward by the hands. Reverse crunches allow the neck to be relaxed because the head is kept on the ground. Also, because reverse crunches do not require any equipment, it may essentially be done anywhere.

Reverse crunches start off by having the individual lie on the ground with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor. The hands are placed at the side with the palms facing downwards. The feet are lifted off the ground until the thigh is perpendicular to the ground while maintaining a 90 degree knee flexion throughout the movement. The knees are then brought toward the face while lifting the glutes and lower back, but keeping the mid-back in contact with the ground. The position is held for a second before slowly lowering the feet back down.

Bicycle Crunches

Another alternative to cable crunches, which may be done without the use of any equipment, are bicycle crunches. Being a very dynamic exercise, bicycle crunches improve coordination and engage both superficial and deep abdominal muscles. By lifting the lower limbs, the transversus abdominis (“deep abs”) muscle is recruited. This muscle supports the hip, pelvis, and spine, thus strengthening it may reduce risk of injury when working out.

bicycle crunch

Bicycle crunches are done by lying on the floor with the head and shoulders slightly off the ground and the hands situated beside the head. One leg is lifted off the ground with the knee extended. The other leg is lifted with the knee flexed toward the chest as the core is slightly twisted to bring the opposite elbow close to touching the knee. The raised leg and elbow are lowered at the same time as the opposite limbs are brought up to mimic the same movement.

Risks of Doing Crunches

Crunches, in whatever form or variation it may be done, poses some risks for injury especially when not done properly. Aside from possibly causing neck and back pains, it may also cause poor posture. 

Back pain from doing crunches may be caused by several factors. When doing crunches, the curved spine is pressed against the ground, which gives rise to an excessive external force that may cause injury if performed more often. The hip is also placed in a flexed position, isometrically contracting. The hip flexors are attached to the lumbar spine, so when these muscles are tight, they pull on their attachments, hence causing low back pain.

The hands are usually positioned at the back of the head when doing crunches. A common mistake among gym goers when doing crunches is pulling the head forward when lifting the shoulders off the ground. This happens because the individual relies on their upper limb rather than their core to lift the body up. This introduces unnecessary stress on the neck and strains the muscle, thus causing pain. Both back and neck pain may cause poor posture. Because the body is in pain, it tends to hold it in a position where pain may be masked.

Final Thoughts

While the cable crunch is a great exercise for strengthening the rectus abdominis and providing aesthetic definition to the abs, there are alternative exercises that do the same with the added benefit of not having to use equipment. Some alternative exercises are also safer or have lesser risks for injury. However, the choice of exercise for working the core and attaining the six-pack abs greatly depends on individual preference.

References

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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